Two years ago, Nigerian security officials thought they had killed Imam Abubakar Shekau. But the leader of the Boko Haram Islamist group is alive and has released a new video threatening the Nigerian state.
Wearing a camouflage flak jacket over a pristine white shirt, flanked by two Kalashnikov rifles, the leader of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram – a man once taken for dead – has issued a new statement challenging Nigeria’s embattled president.
In a 15-minute video posted on YouTube Tuesday, Imam Abubakar Shekau warned Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan that the country’s security forces were no match for his group. (Editor’s Note: The video, which was available earlier this week, has since been deleted by YouTube)
“All these things you’ve been seeing happening, it’s Allah who has been doing it because you refuse to believe in him and you misuse his religion and because of that, the thing is more than you, Jonathan,” said Shekau in his native Hausa language.
As Shekau noted, Jonathan has been “seeing” a lot happening over the past few weeks – and it’s been alarming.
On the economic front, a nationwide strike protesting the scrapping of a government fuel subsidy threatens to cripple the economy of Africa’s most populous and largest oil producing nation.
On the security front, violence has been spiraling since a series of Boko Haram attacks targeted Christians on Christmas Day in the mainly Muslim north. Dozens of people have been killed, and hundreds of Christians have begun fleeing to the mainly Christian and animist south, according to news reports. The exodus was sparked by last week’s warning from Boko Haram that Christians had three days to get out of northern Nigeria.
Amid fears that the long-simmering divisions in this West African nation could ignite a sectarian civil war, a few mosques have come under apparently retaliatory attacks in recent weeks. On Tuesday, an angry mob attacked a mosque and school in southwest Nigeria, killing at least five people.
Lessons from al Qaeda
The latest video by Shekau could not have come at a worse time.
For one, its release threatens to exploit the widening mistrust in a country of 160 million people almost equally split into Christian and Muslim communities that have, in the past, lived largely peacefully and intermarried.
More alarming though, are the noticeable al Qaeda-inspired influences of the latest Shekau video. Wearing a red-and-white checkered headscarf, Shekau begins his message with the Basmallah, the Arabic phrase recited as a preamble to official declarations, which translates as, “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful”.
He then goes on to deliver his message straight to the camera, while the video displays graphics proclaiming, among other things, “Jama’atu ahlis-sunnah lidda’awati wal jihad” – the official name for the Boko Haram group which in Arabic means “people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad”.
Across Nigeria, the group is better known as Boko Haram, which in Hausa, means, “Western education is forbidden”.
There was a time when Boko Haram’s links to al Qaeda – particularly its North African arm AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and the Somalia-based al Shabaab group – were disputed by some experts.
But that was until August 2011, when a Nigerian newspaper carried a purported message from Shekau offering solidarity with al Qaeda and delivering a chilling threat to the West.
Days later, the group conducted a sophisticated suicide attack on the UN headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, killing 25 people.
“Boko Haram is known across Nigeria for keeping its threats,” said Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria-based, pan-African policy institute, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “When Abubakar Shekau says something, it creates panic all over Nigeria.”
Emerging from the dead, Lazarus-like
A rather low-key figure, Shekau first appeared on the radar of security circles in July 2010, when he claimed leadership of the Boko Haram group in a videotaped interview with a local Nigerian journalist.
The July 2010 video interview rattled Nigerian security officials who believed Shekau was dead.
It was a sort of “Lazarus moment” that Western counter-terror experts occasionally experience, when they discover that a militant taken for dead is actually well and truly alive.
In Shekau’s case, Nigerian officials believed he had been killed in clashes between security forces and Boko Haram militants in 2009. The massive security crackdown followed the July 2009 Boko Haram attacks on police stations in northern Nigeria.
Shortly after the attacks, the Nigerian military succeeded in storming the group’s mosque and school complex in the northern Nigerian town of Maiduguri, and capturing Mohammed Yusuf, the group’s then charismatic leader.
Hours after his capture, Yusuf died while in police detention. Nigerian police said the Boko Haram leader had been killed while trying to escape. Most Nigerians – and certainly Boko Haram sympathisers – believe the police killed Yusuf.
In his 2010 videotaped interview, Shekau said he had been shot in the thigh during the fighting with security troops but was rescued by “fellow believers and protected by Allah”.
‘More dangerous than Yusuf’
Boko Haram founder Yusuf was a well known figure, an Islamic scholar who had participated in community projects and even worked with government circles in his earlier, less radical days.
Shekau, his one-time deputy and subsequent successor, on the other hand, does not appear to be cut from the same cloth.
“They’re completely, completely different,” said Ewi. “Yusuf had a broader vision. He played an integral role in bringing Islamic studies to the north since he believed western education was immoral. He was not in hiding, everybody knew him, he could make press statements, and he never carried out al Qaeda-style attacks.”
Although Shekau is an imam, or Muslim preacher, he has a very different style. “I think he’s more dangerous than Yusuf,” said Ewi. “In a sense, Yusuf used to choose his battles. Shekau doesn’t draw boundaries. He’s opportunistic; he’ll attack whenever the opportunity shows.”
All of which does not bode well for Nigeria’s security.
From the ‘mouth of the crocodile’
At a Sunday church service in the capital of Abuja, Jonathan admitted for the first time that there were Boko Haram sympathisers in his government and the security agencies.
While the admission raised eyebrows in international policy circles, Ewi believes it came as no surprise to most Nigerians. “It confirmed a popular belief in Nigeria,” said Ewi, noting that as a researcher it’s a challenge to get people in northern Nigeria to talk about the group. “Families are afraid to talk about Boko Haram. They don’t know who’s Boko Haram and who’s not. When Jonathan made that speech, it only confirmed what Nigerians already know.”
The roots of the attraction of northern Nigerians to Islamic causes stretches back to the end of the Sokoto caliphate, a once powerful empire that included parts of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon before it was divided up by European colonial powers.
In post-independent Nigeria, the higher poverty and illiteracy rates in the north have increased anger and frustration against the country’s endemically corrupt officials, creating a suitable recruitment environment for Boko Haram.
If his latest message is anything to go by, Shekau appears to be a very angry man – and that again does not bode well for Nigeria’s security, particularly any government attempt at negotiations.
“We are at war with Christians because the whole world knows what they did to us,” said Shekau in the YouTube video. “Everyone has seen how we were treated, people have seen what has happened between us and armed security agents.”
“Why is he so violent? I think because Shekau was almost killed. Imagine coming back from the dead. He knows he doesn’t have a second chance if he’s caught by the security forces,” said Ewi. “He was in the mouth of the crocodile, now he’s coming back to kill the crocodile.”
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